By Catherine Hirst, an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program.
ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have adopted very different strategies in Syria and Iraq. ISIS's unbending ideology battles Jabhat al-Nusra's strategic pragmatism. ISIS is making enemies while Jabhat al-Nusra is making friends.
Which strategy proves more successful will not only shed some light on the ideology versus pragmatism dilemma, but also on whether the ISIS-focused approach of foreign security agencies has been well thought out. If it is Jabhat al-Nusra's strategy that proves most effective, the reminder that there are significant threats in Syria beyond ISIS will come too late.
ISIS has a long list of adversaries. The group's fanaticism renders most outsiders enemies, and all enemies targets.
Their English language magazine Dabiq is full of vitriol against everyone, from the usual suspects (President Obama, NATO and the West), to prominent Saudi Clerics, the Shi'ia, Yazidis, Druze, fellow Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and even al-Qaeda, from which the group emerged. With so few friends, they are invariably encircled by enemies: the Assad regime and Hezbollah forces to the west, the Kurds to the north, the aerial bombardment campaigns of more than ten countries as well as other opposition groups.
ISIS's hard-line stance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group's self-professed divinely mandated mission creates an appealing and empowering narrative. This has been a powerful message, servicing group cohesion and attracting would-be recruits. On the other hand, this narrative also creates an 'us against them' mindset and ensures that, while it may be able to forge temporary alliances, its lack of subtlety and inclusivity prevents it from creating broader support networks. The very thing that has grown its numbers is also expanding the number of its enemies.
Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-aligned group initially sent into Syria at the behest of ISIS leadership, provides an interesting comparison to ISIS. The organisation has crafted a web of alliances with fellow Syrian rebel groups. For example they play a prominent role in the Jaysh al-Fatah and Dar al-Qada'a coalitions, whose members include Jaysh al Islam and Ahrar al Sham – two powerful Islamist players in the Syrian landscape. These coalitions also integrate Jabhat al-Nusra into broader networks of support, with Jaysh al Fatah supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This allows Jabhat al-Nusra to benefit from regional sponsors without being part of the direct supply chain.
Jabhat al-Nusra has even made placatory overtures towards minorities and the West (two groups that in the past have been key targets of al Qaeda – Jabhat al-Nusra's affiliate). In his last interview with Al Jazeera in May 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, reassured the West that they were not a target (albeit with the ominous caveat of 'at this stage'). Al-Joulani went on to guarantee that the Shi'ia, and even regime supporters, would be welcomed as brothers if they repented their ways. Rather than indicating a substantive change in attitude, this shows Jabhat al-Nusra's awareness that softer messaging will help their prospects of survival.
Jabhat al-Nusra has also managed to win the support of some local Syrians in rebel-held territory. Outreach programs and flexibility regarding local norms, have proved effective ways of ingratiating itself with local populations.
Jabhat al-Nusra's approach has its own challenges, however. It must tread a fine line between forming strategic alliances and maintaining legitimacy as an authoritative voice of Islam. ISIS has for some time accused Jabhat al-Nusra of consorting with apostates, indicating ISIS's willingness to exploit this weakness.
In the case of Syria and Iraq, it is pragmatism that will likely prove the best strategy. This is because the dilemma facing Jabhat al-Nusra is likely only a short-term one – the tension between flexibility and legitimacy will no longer be relevant if it outlasts ISIS. If ISIS falls, Jabhat al-Nusra and its parent organisation al Qaeda will be the most radical game in town, likely absorbing what fighters remain. Whereas irrespective of whether Jabhat al-Nusra survives or not, ISIS will still be encircled by enemies. ISIS has painted itself into a corner where modifying its approach based on strategic grounds would deal a potentially fatal blow to its credibility. In contrast, Jabhat al-Nusra's ability to form strategic alliances when required, even when these do not fit in with their long-term goals, shows a cunning malleability that may be the key to its survival.
It seems that in this case, it is far better to make friends than enemies, and international security agencies must plan accordingly.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Day Donaldson.